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This Is Us: Justin Hartley on Rebecca’s Alzheimer’s, Dad Like Jack

SPOLER ALERT: Do not read if you have not watched “The Night Before the Wedding,” the April 26 episode of “This Is Us.”

There are four episodes left of “This Is Us” following Tuesday’s installment, which gave Pearson fans the long-awaited answer to the question of who is Kevin (Justin Hartley) going to marry without actually showing us who Kevin marries. The episode ended with the romantic reunion of high-school-sweethearts-turned-divorced-couple Kevin and Sophie (Alexandra Breckenridge) at Kate’s (Chrissy Metz) second wedding, and cheers from the whole family over those two crazy kids finally figuring it out, with the heavy implication (confirmed by Hartley and Breckenridge) it will result in them tying the knot for good.

Assisting in Kevin and Sophie finding their way back to each after many false starts and years apart was the aging and Alzheimer’s-afflicted Rebecca (Mandy Moore). Kevin’s mother was unknowingly reminding and supporting him and Sophie at different points during the wedding weekend, because her disease has her thinking Kevin is Jack (Milo Ventimiglia) and that Sophie was still a young adult, of how Kevin and Sophie were right for each other at the wrong time in their 20s.

Variety spoke with Hartley about Rebecca’s “heartbreaking” deterioration heading into the final four episodes of “This Is Us,” as well as how Kevin will emulate his father in his parenting of Nicky, who apparently takes after Kevin quite a bit.

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Photo by: Ron Batzdorff/NBC
Ron Batzdorff/NBC

Kate, Kevin and Randall (Sterling K. Brown) all respond to their mother’s Alzheimer’s episodes differently, with Kevin choosing to go along with her moments of thinking he is Jack. Can you talk about that?

First of all, it’s heartbreaking. You can’t help but think of your own mother. I love my mother dearly. She’s one of the greatest human beings I’ve ever met. Everyone loves my mother. My wife calls her Martha Stewart. So you can’t help but fill in those people in those spaces and think, “Oh my God, that’s got to be the most impossible thing. What would I do?” And then on top of that, if you look at the character and his development, what Kevin would have done was probably panic and freak out and not be able to handle it. And fake it that he was handling it, but really fucked it up.

So he’s done all of the work and now realized what he’s really, really good at — and maybe even better than anyone else on the planet — and that is taking care of other people. He is really good at it. He’s also a man now, and he has the ability to compartmentalize, realize what’s going on in front of you, and deal with it. And then I think in his private moment, probably when he closes the door and he’s alone in his in his hotel room, I was sort of envisioning him maybe even crying. Just really having a moment to kind of break down, and realize what the hell is happening in his life? But he’s certainly not going to do that in front of his mother as she slips in and out of reality, and where she thinks she may be. I thought it was important to make sure that we didn’t make her disease about him as much as it was about her and about this woman who still has needs. This is mom, if she’s thinking that that’s Jack, the least Kevin can do — she raised him, she gave him everything — is take care of that moment for her as she slips in and out. I just thought that was a really manly, honorable, grown-up thing to do. And he’s going to keep doing that.

Lazy loaded image

Photo by: Ron Batzdorff/NBC
Ron Batzdorff/NBC

Rebecca’s episodes are moments of clarity for Sophie and Kevin, reminding them of both why they were together in the first place and why they were wrong for each other early on. What did you think of that little bit of silver-lining to Rebecca’s illness?

It’s the important things that stick. So you have a woman who is slipping in and out, and even when she’s out, she’s not remembering things as they are now, but remembering things the way that they were in better times. Whatever that relationship was, whatever it was in her mind at the time, that was real to her. I think sometimes middle-aged people are caught in this purgatory of knowledge, where you used to have a lot of knowledge and then you’re going to have a lot of knowledge eventually, but right now you are kind of just a dumb mess. When you see people like Rebecca talking about things, and as you’re watching them and you’re listening to them and the things that really matter in their life — and these are the twilight years, she obviously doesn’t have long to live, we would imagine, her quality of life is waning — the things that come out of their mouth and the things they remember about life and what really is important and what really doesn’t matter at all are remarkable. And it’s a constant lesson that I don’t know if anyone will ever fully be able to grasp, but you can at least visit it every single day. That was what got me was, that this woman who has lived this entire life, she’s done it all, is talking about her son and about Sophie and about how they’ll figure it out. And sort of in that way, even though he’s taking care of her and she’s elderly and her mind is going and she’s slipping, she’s able to take care of Kevin without even really knowing it. I thought that was such a sweet thing to do. She is still mom. Even though she thinks she’s talking to Jack, she’s still Kevin’s mom.

What can you tease about what more we’ll see of Kevin’s parenting of the slightly older kid versions of twins Franny and Nicky in the final episodes?

It’s not always fun and games. It’s not always rainbows and butterflies, sometimes there are tough sometimes. Look, Kevin wasn’t the easiest child growing up. So you can imagine if he has twins, and he has a boy, you can imagine that maybe the apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree and maybe there’s some conflict there, as well. Because it’s too good to be true that he has these two really wonderful, lovely all-the-time, perfect children. They don’t exist. But it’s fun to see him in a different capacity. Remember when we used to see Jack be like, “Get your ass upstairs,” because Kevin was being a little pill. Now you see Kevin dealing with his kid, saying, “Go to your room! You’ve got to be kidding!” It’s pretty good stuff.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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